TAMPA — Bonnie Lambert is such a fan of principal John Haley that she followed him — twice — to different schools.
First, from Wesley Chapel to South Tampa to work for Haley at Madison Middle School. And now she works for him at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, Hillsborough's new experiment with an all-boys school.
The decision to leave Madison was very difficult, said Lambert. But she was not alone in wanting to work with Haley.
"I would tell you 11 teachers followed him," said Lambert, an intervention specialist at the school, "and I think it's because he is motivating, trustworthy, empathetic and appreciative of our hard work."
America's demand for better teachers has resulted in a multitude of teacher accountability initiatives, but Hillsborough and other districts across the country are now turning the spotlight on principals.
"As a human being, I can't think of a more important position to have," said Jody Spiro of the Wallace Foundation. "What a way to make a difference if you get it right."
The New York-based foundation is investing $75 million in Hillsborough and five other districts across the country to identify and develop high quality school leaders.
Scholars know anecdotally that great principals attract and retain great teachers, which translates into more learning. In fact, the association contends that no troubled school has ever been turned around without an effective principal.
And teachers and parents often say that a school's principal means everything.
But "how do you make it happen?" asked Spiro, interim education director at Wallace. "And what if you had effective principals in all your schools? What does that look like?"
Hillsborough and all of the other districts chosen are already undergoing Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded teacher development programs, Spiro said. That was important, as the researchers wanted to look at training systems already under way.
Hillsborough begins its second year of "Empowering Effective Teachers," a multimillion-dollar reform effort to revamp how teachers are evaluated that is slated to last seven years. Formerly done by principals, evaluations now reflect a combination of peer evaluations, the principal's observations and test scores. Ultimately, it will help set teacher pay.
Principals, similarly, used to be evaluated by area directors, said David Steele, who heads up the Gates project. Now there also is a survey of teachers and, of course, test scores.
But it's not just about the evaluation.
The Principal Pipeline project will try to help Hillsborough districts better match principals to schools, train them in specialized areas such as running high-poverty schools and help them spend as much time as possible leading teachers.
"Our data shows that principals spend time doing lots of other things," Spiro said. For example, making sure the buses are running on time is a task that should be delegated but often is not, she said.
Spiro also acknowledged that districts often play musical chairs with failing principals, simply transferring them to other schools or moving them into administrative jobs.
With better preparation, she said, "It should not get to that point."
In the end, Hillsborough hopes to find the best possible principals to replace those who are retiring or being pulled out of service temporarily to become Gates mentors. Those factors could create as many as 75 slots over the next five years.
Teachers such as Lambert who are devoted to certain principals say they are simply inspired.
Like Lambert, Calvin Dillon was torn about leaving Gaither High School to follow principal Brenda Grasso to Steinbrenner High School.
Grasso asked Dillon to lead the English department.
"I didn't want to leave the family I had joined, and I was nervous about taking on increased responsibilities as department chair," he said.
"But Mrs. Grasso has been and continues to be an excellent model of how to maintain grace under extreme pressure and responsibility, and I knew I wasn't ready to work for anyone else, just yet."
Dillon, a Hillsborough Teacher of the Year finalist, said Grasso "is the definition of professional."
Likewise, Sulphur Springs Elementary principal Christi Buell is a strong role model, said teacher Shanna Uhe.
"I learn a lot from her because I'm an aspiring administrator too," Uhe said. "It's nice to work under somebody who you want to be like."
Once a two-time F school, Sulphur Springs now has a C and posted some of the district's highest FCAT writing scores last term.
"She's very visionary," Uhe said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]